"Too much experience", "Not a good fit" at 40

I just turned 40, and I now find myself seeking a new job.

Good positions that would normally suit someone of my age or experience (senior manager, director, chief or VP) are few and far between. And because of my meandering multi-disciplinary background (career and education), I don’t have the classic 15+ years of being promoted in a single discipline that is common or desirable in such positions. And frankly, I am not politically gifted, especially charismatic or focused on leading teams (although I have done that successfully as required).

The positions that are more often posted and available are usually seeking 5+ years of experience or so. I certainly wouldn’t mind this level of work as I enjoy doing things hands-on and believe I still have things to learn in particular disciplines. But when I apply or interview for these positions, I get the old “this job wouldn’t suit someone of your experience” comment. I was told at a recent interview that although my background and skills are relevant, I “wouldn’t be a good fit” there in terms of “hierarchy”. I get it.

Anyone been in a similar situation? How does one discuss and overcome these issues with a potential employer (in a cover letter, on a resume and in an interview)? Or are there alternative paths I should be considering at this age and with such a background?

(If it matters, I am looking at strategy positions. I have 2 degrees, one related to design, one to marketing. I have international experience in both areas and I am searching for jobs in major global cities. I have worked in corporate and consulting environments.)

On paper, it sounds like you’d be a great fit at many companies. Focus your efforts not on companies that currently have jobs open, but those where you want to be working. Try to make contact with employees/hiring managers to get your name out there. Some companies don’t advertise positions because they have several candidates in mind for positions that are opening soon. You should be on that list of candidates. The only way to do that is to put yourself out there, send your resume to company presidents or VPs, and you might find yourself some call backs.

Consider this. Tomorrow, someone may give their 2 weeks notice. If your resume lands on a hiring managers desk the week they find out they need to hire someone to fill the position, you’re probably getting an interview.

Best of luck.

I was told at a recent interview that although my background and skills are relevant, > I “wouldn’t be a good fit” there in terms of “hierarchy”> . I get it.

Put another way; age discrimination. At 40… … I ran into it at 50.

I’ve seen people with 15+ years of experience successfully land these jobs in the past. I think they have always been very clear on what their intentions are and what their value proposition is. For example, I know a designer in his 50’s who had been VP of design at a company in his 40’s. He wanted to go back to being a high level contributor at the senior designer level. He was very clear that he had experienced the leadership role, and would not under any circumstances try to usurp the director, that what he could bring to the table was an understanding of what a director goes through, so could act as an excellent right hand man, he could mentor the team to be more empathetic in that regard, and having so much experience, was just as excited as a recent grad to jump into designing stuff hands on, if not more! That is a clear value to an organization, and hard to pass up. I’m not sure where his pay ended up, he didn’t report to me, but it was higher than the average senior designer I’m sure.

Show what your strengths are, what you bring to the table, and show it as uniquely beneficial, instead of seeing your weaknesses.

This is always one of those things you wonder in the back of your head as a designer working for someone else… what’s going to happen with your position in the long run. The worst is in those corp environments where the only older people are managers - it makes you wonder where the rest of them went!

Ever heard of the Peter Principle? it says that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” (wikipedia)… or, in other words, I think it means that not everybody is meant to be a manager if it’s not really their strength. If a designer only has a choice of being a manager just because of age or years at the company, but really is better as a designer, he might not do as well in the role

You can never have too much experience. From the sound of your background it sounds like you’ve got some really great sellable assets that a lot of companies would want. Employers will often have a good idea in their mind as to the type of people they’d like to hire to fit within their team regardless of age. I guess sometimes an employer could use your age as an issue because they feel threatened by your experience, focus on trying to alleviate their feeling of being threatened by putting a positive spin on it.

As Michael says, focus on your strengths and turn your perceived weakness into a positive.

Best of luck

Thank you all for the encouragement and sunshine.

A challenge mentioned in the comments is the “threatened by experience” issue. I am hardly a threatening type – as I hinted at when I revealed my political ineptness and other traits – but I have felt this type of reaction. The balance is this:
• To create interest in HR departments, it is helpful to mention the experience I have, including any good company or client names, degrees and the schools where they were earned.
• But once I get an interview with a discipline leader or potential future co-worker (not the HR person), I may be sitting across from someone who has fewer years of experience, less background diversity and/or fewer educational qualifications. The self-preservation principle seems to kick in then for the interviewer, and I am on the back foot from the start. I don’t say this to be an arrogant a$$hole although I’m sure I sound like one – it’s just obvious for most humans: if they have a choice between a few hires, they will hire one that doesn’t look like trouble. (Hell, maybe I would do the same?! Damn me karma!)

It’s difficult to balance what these various stakeholders want. From my experience so far and from your comments, I think I have a couple tasks before me:

  1. Identify those few organisations that actually do feel “you can never have too much experience” and actually do appreciate “integrative thinking” and “multidisciplinary experience.”
    For all the lip service out there, there appear to be very few places that actually live and hire by these easy phrases. At the end of the day, even so-called “enlightened” or “innovative” firms are very divided with departments, disciplines, territories, titles etc.

  2. Go above or behind any “HR department” type person.
    As suggested, somehow get directly in contact with top leaders who may have a bigger vision. Talk with those few people who can see value in experience and diversity and override the traditional (and wholly bankrupt, backwards, in-human, un-resource-ful, ineffective) HR system.

Now, how to do all this?? Wish me luck!

What about your professional network? Seems to me like most experienced professionals utilize rather than applying to job postings.

I prefer being freelance now I’m older. I don’t want to be a design manager and these are the roles I get pursued for for FT.

People seem to want youngsters for FT footwear roles (in the UK anyway) maybe because they can pay them less, but my freelance clients are employing me for my experience. Yes my rates are not the cheapest, but you can guarantee you won’t have to keep explaining the brief to me, nor will you need to worry that I’ll get it wrong / go off on a tangent.

I have some recent experience with this as well…kinda. I’m 33, but I am a design manager. For reasons I won’t get into here I want out of the role, at some other organization I could probably shine, but not where I’m currently at. In fact, I would be fine growing into this role at another company, but I am not seeking to jump right into another company as a manager/director. What you’re talking about hit me a couple months ago when I interviewed at another company for a staff/senior design position. They asked several times if I was ok with the fact that the position was not a management position and I was very clear that that isn’t my objective and that I wanted to get back into a designer role and do design work. I went so far as to tell them that I don’t have a need to be managing a team, I have a need to learn more as a designer before I would entertain getting back into it.

I think the difference for me is that I’m younger than the interviewer and I have less experience, but all the same I was very explicit about my intentions and what I could contribute as a designer.